Cute behind glass — not so in the flesh

Peter Jackson
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Walking up Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, you hit the southeast corner of Central Park at 59th Street.

In July, it’s usually hot and sticky. Exhaust fumes fill the air; sirens and car horns punctuate the familiar hum of the big city. Old people sit on benches. Vendors sell hotdogs, knishes and cold drinks.

A block or two further north, you’ll come across the Central Park Zoo.

Gus is the lone polar bear in the zoo now. A female, Ida, died of liver cancer last year.

He lives in a large, rocky pen with a waterfall, some ice and 90,000 gallons of fresh water. That includes a pool with a glass wall, so you can see him swim underwater.

The Central Park bear is a wondrous sight. Imposing, yet cuddly. Clumsy, yet agile. It’s also sad to see this world’s largest land predator, far from its Arctic habitat, lounging in a manmade display case in the City That Never Sleeps.

Polar bears are amazing. Standing about 10 feet tall on their hind legs, they can smell prey up to 20 miles away. They can smash through walls of ice in minutes and devour huge mounds of meat in one sitting.

They can run on ice at over 30 kilometres an hour and can swim across vast expanses of open water. They are fearless and will stalk any animal when hungry, including humans.

That pretty well makes polar bears the most dangerous animal on four legs.

In 2001, in Labrador, a quick-acting guide shot a polar bear that had invaded a cluster of tents in the early dawn. The campers — mostly from the Netherlands — had been on an adventure tour. The bear was seconds away from mauling someone.

Last year, a British teenager was not so lucky. Horatio Chapple, 17, was mauled to death at a student camping trip on a Norwegian glacier in August. Four others were injured before the bear was finally shot.

So, when a polar bear is milling about a populated town on the Newfoundland coast, concerns about global warming and survival of the species tend to fly out the window. At some point, it’s kill or be killed.

That’s been a recurring story in the past couple of weeks. Two animals have already been destroyed.

There’s been a bit of public bellyaching about these killings. It’s fine to speak academically about saving endangered species (the local bears aren’t threatened), or about “assessing the safety risk” when humans and animals interact.

But with polar bears, there is no second guessing. That tranquilizer dart serves little purpose if someone has already become bear food before it arrives.

Simple, really.


Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor.


Twitter: pjackson_NL

Geographic location: Central Park, Fifth Avenue, Manhattan Newfoundland Arctic Netherlands

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